Edna Griffin

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Edna Griffin


Edna Griffin did 2000 was a Des Moines Iowa communist and civil rights activist. In 2020 the Des Moines Communist Party USA club was called the Edna Griffin Club.

Joe Henry connection

Joe Henry joined the Communist Party USA in 1982. Brought in by Edna Griffin. Joe Henry December 15, 2019.

History - Back in 1984, we did a special event for our dear friends, Edna Griffin & Stanley Griffin, to raise money for social justice work.

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It was a great time for activism and discussion on how to mobilize our communities of color. Edna always provided insight and an in depth analysis on confronting racism and how she fought to make our city a better place for all people.

Shortly afterwards, we went to city hall to demand equal treatment in the hiring of applicants for police and fire fighters, especially from the Latino and African American Communities.

Unfortunately, we are still fighting to make city hall and the 1,804 positions in city government more accessible to people of color.

Special guests, Evelyn Davis (director of Tiny Tots / Mercy) and Mary Campos. — with Evelyn Davis Park.

Early life

Edna Griffin (nee Williams) was born October 23, 1909, most likely in Carlisle, Kentucky, to Henrietta Williams and her husband Edward Hearst Williams, who was employed mostly as a janitor.

Her family moved frequently. Young Edna attended junior high in Walpole, New Hampshire, spent her freshman year of high school at Lenox High School in Lenox, Massachusetts, and ultimately graduated, in 1928, from Pittsfield High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She applied to prestigious Oberlin College and the Eastman School of Music before ultimately deciding to attend Fisk University in Nashville, the gold standard among historically black colleges.

Up until that point, she had lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. As she recalled in an interview in 1986, she had not been exposed to the power of the black church until after college.

At Fisk, Edna Williams majored in sociology, met her future husband, Stanley Griffin, and earned a B.A. in 1933. She worked cleaning houses to help pay for her education, and she did not have many friends besides Stanley. Edna’s daughter Phyllis Griffin recalls that her mother believed that Fisk was too conservative, too interested in skin color.

However, Griffin’s future radicalism first manifested itself at Fisk. There she marched, with Stanley, against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia; was arrested for joining striking teachers on a picket line; and, during her senior year, joined the Communist Party USA, an affiliation she would keep for more than 24 years.

The Griffins may have spent time in Harlem shortly after Edna graduated. If so, Edna would have spent formative years in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance. Not much is known of this period of Edna Griffin’s life, although she testified during the Katz trial that before coming to Iowa she and Stanley had lived in New York City, Georgia, Tennessee, and Springfield, Massachusetts.

The story of Griffin’s starring role in the Katz saga began when the Griffins came to Des Moines, which by Edna’s own recollection occurred on January 2, 1947. The couple moved to Iowa so that Stanley could attend Still Osteopathic School of Medicine. After years of moving around, the Griffins would make Des Moines their permanent residence. Edna gave birth to the first of three children, Phyllis, in 1947. Despite being a new mother, Edna became an activist in Des Moines almost immediately. Within the next year she had already been appointed to leadership posts as chair of the organizing committee of the Progressive Party for Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District and secretary-treasurer of the Des Moines branch of the Communist Party USA. She also enrolled as a graduate student at Drake University, taking classes in education and English. [1]

Hansen connection

While working for Iowa Farmers Union in the late 1940s, Merle Hansen became a close friend of African-American civil rights activist Edna Griffin and her husband, Dr. Stanley Griffin, of Des Moines, Iowa. Hansen volunteered his support to Edna's campaign to integrate the lunch counter at Katz Drug Store, one of the first successful actions of the civil rights movement. Hansen's friendship with the Griffin family led to his acquaintance and friendship with other civil rights leaders.

Katz incident

On July 7, 1948, sometime between 2:30 and 5:00 p.m., Edna Griffin, age 39; her infant daughter, Phyllis; John Bibbs, age 22; and Leonard Hudson, age 32, entered Katz Drug Store at the intersection of 7th and Locust streets in Des Moines. While Hudson went to look for some batteries, Griffin and Bibbs took seats at the lunch counter, and a waitress came shortly to take their order. The two African Americans ordered ice cream sundaes, but as the waitress walked toward the ice cream dispenser, a young white man came and whispered a message into her ear.

The waitress returned to Griffin and Bibbs and informed the pair that she was not allowed to serve them, because of theirrace. By that time Hudson had finished purchasing a set of batteries and rejoined his companions. The three adults asked to see the waitress’s supervisor, and she obliged, summoning the young fountain manager, C. L. Gore, a 22-year-old who had come north from Florida just two years earlier. The tenor of that exchange would later be disputed: Griffin, Bibbs, and Hudson claimed that the conversation was hushed and polite; Gore said that the three black patrons were causing a disturbance. What is not disputed is that Griffin and Hudson were unsuccessful in getting any ice cream that day, despite appealing to store manager Maurice Katz.1 More significantly, Edna Griffin used the incident as the impetus to topple the segregationist policies of the Katz Drug Store chain. Within 18 months, Griffin had mobilized citizens to take action against the chain, launched successful civil and criminal lawsuits against store owner Maurice Katz, and earned vindication when the Katz Drug Store capitulated to African American demands by agreeing to cease all discriminatory policies in December 1949.

Edna Griffin sought to meet this challenge by winning converts both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. The legal strategy she developed in consultation with fellow members of the Progressive Party and lawyers for the NAACP was first to press a criminal case against Katz, and then to proceed with civil cases.

Proceedings against Katz moved quickly: by July 10, just three days after being denied service, Griffin, Bibbs, and Hudson had filed charges against Katz in Des Moines Municipal Court.22 Two days later, Katz pleaded not guilty; he was released on bond, and a trial date was set for the September term. The trial was held on October 6.

The trial began with a failed attempt by the defense to file a demurrer on behalf of its clients, C. L. Gore and M. C. Katz. The court summarily rejected the opening gambit, and the trial continued with brief opening statements from Paul C. McDonnell, the assistant county attorney, and Paul Stinson, Katz’s lawyer.

John Bibbs was the first to take the witness stand. He stated that he was 22 years old, single, working in maintenance. On July 7 he had been coming from the headquarters of the Progressive Party, through which he knew Griffin and Hudson.

Bibbs was young and ambitious; recently discharged from the navy, he had already been promoted to chair the Progressive Party of Des Moines, even though he had only been a member of the party for three months.

Bibbs repeatedly insisted, in his initial testimony and upon cross-examination, that “there was no disturbance”; the entire incident was orderly and polite. “We walked into the store and sat down at the counter and didn’t say anything to anybody until the girl came up and asked for our orders.” “There was no loud talking on either side,” he stated; both Gore and Katz were “very polite and refused very politely.” He also emphasized that “we went to the Katz Drug Store that day for the purpose of getting something cold to drink,” not at the behest of the Progressive Party or “for the purpose of making a test case under the law.”

Leonard Hudson corroborated Bibb’s testimony. He was 32 and unemployed at the time of the Katz incident, although he had worked as a laborer and was last employed as a truck driver hauling scrap iron. He had previously worked for seven months for the Iowa Packing Company but ceased working there when the packers went on strike. On July 7 he had been called to the Progressive Party headquarters by E. C. Richards, a state representative for the Progressive Party, who wanted to know if Hudson would be able to help organize for the party, possibly by starting up a football team. Hudson declared at the trial that he was not a member of the Progressive Party, although he did take part in protests that Griffin organized outside of the store in the weeks after the incident.

According to Hudson, he met up with Bibbs while at the Progressive Party office, and the pair happened to run into Griffin while walking from the office towards downtown Des Moines.

He described what started out as a rather uneventful meeting: “We stood and talked with Mrs. Griffin for a few minutes about the baby and the weather being hot. We walked up the street and Edna mentioned something about getting an ice cream soda or a cold drink and I said I would be glad to buy you a drink or a soda and she said let’s stop in here and we just walked into Katz Drug Store.”

Griffin was radical enough to merit concern from the federal government, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had begun keeping a file on her after Harry Truman had signed executive order 9035, allowing for the establishment of a “security index” of citizens with sympathies or affiliations with communist, anarchist, or revolutionary organizations.

From 1947 to 1965 the FBI collected more than 400 pages of information on Griffin, and if what informants reported was accurate, then at the time of the Katz incident Griffin was heavily involved in the Communist Party USA, paying monthly dues for her and her husband, subscribing to the Daily Worker, and working in the capacity of secretary-treasurer for the Des Moines branch of the party.

Fortunately for Griffin, Katz’s lawyers were not aware of her Communist Party USA affiliation. Nonetheless, central to their defense was an attempt to paint Griffin as an agitator who premeditated her trip to Katz. Griffin and her lawyers, on the other hand, continued to claim, as had Hudson and Bibbs, that the visit was based on a spontaneous and innocent decision to obtain refreshment.[2]

References